Jacob Dodson accompanied John C. Fremont on three expeditions to explore the Western frontier. Dodson was a free born African American whose family worked in the service of Fremont’s father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. In 1843, Dodson was 18 years old when he left his family home in Washington, D.C., for the first of these three expeditions. At first, Dodson was listed as Fremont’s personal servant, but his knowledge and abilities quickly made him into a full-fledged member of the party. Fremont’s task was to explore the Great Plains and the path to the Pacific Ocean.
Dodson’s first trip left Kansas City on May 29th, and covered 6,475 miles round trip over the next fourteen months. During the journey, the party often went hungry and had to scrounge for food, nearly starving. The party became stuck in the Sierra Mountains in the winter of 1844, and Fremont relied on Dodson to go ahead of the main party to scout a path through the mountains. Over the course of the journey, eleven out of the 39 members of the party left, and Dodson grew into one of the most important members of the group.
On Dodson’s second trip west with Fremont, they rode into California at the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Fremont held southern California in Los Angeles, but heard rumors of an upcoming attack by the Mexicans. Needing to alert the army in Monterey, Fremont, Dodson, and Don Jesus Pico rode round trip from Los Angeles to Monterey in eight days, covering 840 miles and spending only 76 actual hours riding.
Dodson returned to Washington after three trips to the west with Fremont. He received a job as an attendant to the U.S. Senate. He married and settled down, but when the Civil War broke out, Dodson wrote a letter to the secretary of war offering to raise a unit of 300 free African Americans to fight for the Union. He received a reply stating that the Union had no intention of using “colored soldiers.”
G.M. Bergman, “The Negro Who Rode with Fremont in 1847,” Negro History Bulletin, 28(2), p. 31-32; “They Had a Dream: Frontier Conquered, Despite Ordeals,” Kansas City Star, Jan. 12, 1974, p. 14
University of Washington